Workshops R Us. A week and a half ago, the advanced novel-writing workshop that I run with Craig Gardner came to an end for this year. It was a seriously good ending, as every one of the six participants is working on material with definite publication potential—some closer to being ready than others, but all good. It was a terrifically encouraging workshop, and I’m especially cheered that the group is going off and continuing to meet and support each other on their own now.
With that done, I’m leaving shortly for a brief stint as instructor-for-a-day at the Odyssey Workshop in New Hampshire, another seriously good program, a much denser and more immersive workshop. I’m going to be working with the participants there on issues of story structure and how plot, conflict, and characterization all play into it.
Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?
I guess I would call my writing in college the point at which I was writing seriously—by which I mean, trying to produce real stories that someone might want to read, or even publish. I’d had encouragement at that point from family and teachers, including a college writing teacher who told me he thought my work was publishable. It wasn’t. I didn’t know that yet, but the encouragement helped keep me going as I ever so slowly learned the craft of storytelling. It would be another six years and a file full of rejections before I sold my first short story (to Fiction magazine, in Boston).
If I had realized sooner what I was doing wrong, I might have shortened that learning period considerably. The problem was, I wasn’t telling complete stories. I was going with what people told me were my strengths—description and characterization—and missing the need to tell an interesting story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I didn’t understand about story structure. I was writing mood pieces, story fragments. My teachers weren’t really versed in SF, or even in anything resembling conventional storytelling standards, and they weren’t able to give me the direction I needed. I had no workshop to turn to, and was really writing on my own, with occasional feedback from editors like Terry Carr and Robert Silverberg, who liked my work well enough to at least hint at what they didn’t like, as they returned my stories. It wasn’t until years later that I found a source of good, regular criticism, when I met Craig Gardner and he invited me to join the writing group he was a part of. He and I are still members of that group-thirty years later! And Craig and I now run our own writing workshops in the Boston area.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
I’d learned just enough about putting a story together, and the craft of writing narrative prose, to make it over the bar to become publishable. Little did I know at that point how much more I had to learn—and am still learning! But I think the turning point was realizing, somewhere deep in the subconscious, that I had to bring an interesting character through a conflict and to a resolution of that conflict. I think I had to find a balance between the ambiguity that was interesting to me and the kind of resolution that was satisfying to a reader.
As a science fiction writer, I would imagine you devote a certain amount of time to actual research in order to enhance your stories and their believability. When, in your writing process, do you start researching, and how long does it take? Do you have any tips on making the research process more simple? Any favorite websites you frequent?
The amount of research I need to do varies wildly from one story to the next. Sometimes I do none; sometimes I do a lot. When I say none, of course, I’m sort of lying; all of life is research for my writing. All my human interactions, all my experiences as a kid and as a parent, as a loner and as a husband, come to bear on my characters. All my reading, much of it in areas of science and public affairs, influences my stories. Though I didn’t major in science, I’ve always been a science junkie, and my general knowledge of science has been important to my ability to tell stories with scientific plausibility. For particular stories, I’ve done targeted research: nanotechnology, cosmic strings, and supernovas for From a Changeling Star; chaos theory and the Voyager spacecraft findings about Neptune and Triton for Neptune Crossing; tachyons for The Infinity Link; stellar nurseries and stellar evolution for Sunborn. For The Infinite Sea, I drew heavily on my experience as a scuba diver and the knowledge I’d gained from that, years before.
I do the research when I realize I need to. That sometimes happens early, sometimes late in the process. My biggest “Oops!” in research was waiting to do some of the supernova research for From a Changeling Star until I was nearly finished. (Stupid, stupid.) I had consulted with an astronomer friend, but hadn’t taken his advice to check with his friend, who was a supernova specialist. When I finally did, I learned that I’d gotten some important things wrong. So while my editor was tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for the manuscript, I was busily rebuilding certain key points in the book, getting it right. (I knew that not one reader in a thousand would know the difference. But now that I knew the difference, I had to fix it.) It didn’t help that it was an amnesia story as well, and some of these key points were being revealed gradually through the story, so I had to change not just one place, but many places. My advice: Don’t do that.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the NASA-sponsored Launchpad Astronomy Workshop in Wyoming. This is an annual, week-long intensive astronomy course tailored for writers, and covers everything from the basics up through cutting-edge research. A great experience, and one I highly recommend for pro or near-pro writers.
The website I most frequent is Google. Okay, I guess that’s not very helpful. I do check Astronomy Picture of the Day every day. And I get the New Scientist and Discover e-newsletters, which send me down some interesting paths. (I also subscribe to those magazines, as well as to Astronomy, The Atlantic, and the New Yorker.) Mostly, though, I just follow my nose when something looks interesting. I also sometimes, when I need to know something about a subject, find an expert and ask. Very helpful, that.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Finding time and concentration to write, the same as (I’ll bet) for many of your students. It hasn’t gotten any easier over the years. Being a parent and needing to earn income in other ways have, at times, had to take priority over the writing. That’s just life, and I’m not as good at time-sharing my mental and creative work as some people are. How do I cope? I keep at it, and don’t give up (even when I want to). In the actual creative process, I seem to keep taking on story ideas that are more and more ambitious, and more difficult to pull off. This is probably a good thing artistically, and always feels rewarding in the end. But it doesn’t always feel good when I’m in the middle of it!
For me, the hardest part is getting a first draft down. Once I have the clay in my hands, so to speak, I find it much easier to work at reshaping it.
Your 2008 release, SUNBORN, is the fourth book of your CHAOS CHRONICLES series. The first book of this series, NEPTUNE CROSSING, came out in 1995 and is unfortunately out of print. Can you talk about what it’s like to write a series that spans such a great length of time, in publishing terms?
In publishing and marketing terms, what I did with the Chaos books was sheer idiocy. The long gap between the first three books and Sunborn resulted from my taking time out to write Eternity’s End, set in my Star Rigger universe. That book proved really hard to write and took something like six years to finish. It was well received, and got me a Nebula nomination; but the problem coming out of it was that the Chaos trail had grown cold by the time I got back to book four. My outlines no longer made much sense to me, and it took a long time to rebuild momentum. In addition, with Sunborn, I was tackling what turned out to be an extraordinarily difficult narrative challenge: telling a story of cosmic-scale events, but keeping it personal and immediate on the human level. I hope I succeeded, but not without heading down many a wrong path in the process. Still, once I had the initial draft done, I felt for the first time that I knew what I was doing, and I could tackle the rewrite with a clearer sense of the story.
By pure coincidence, the day after I finished the first draft of Sunborn, my editor called and asked me if I’d like to write a novelization of Battlestar Galactica (the miniseries). That was something I was required to do fast, but it was fun and a welcome change of pace. I was retelling someone else’s story, so I was able to use other parts of my brain to focus purely on the craft. It was just what the doctor ordered.
Once Sunborn was done, another year or two down the road, the book was scheduled for publication—and then delayed yet another year for reasons internal to the publishing process. That was pretty frakking hard to take, but it did give me an opportunity to revise some sections after having some months away from the book.
So, there I was, with Book 4 of an out-of-print series scheduled for publication. Tricky, from a marketing viewpoint. (I try to avoid the word “suicidal.”) I knew I needed to do something to renew audience interest in the series—and to try to bring new readers to it. Creating a national scandal might have been a good choice—but I’m not a very scandalous person. So I went with Plan B, which was to release all the earlier books in ebook format, for free download from my website. (You can download them right now, in fact, at http://www.starrigger.net/Downloads.htm.) The results were immensely gratifying. I got many emails from readers who said this was the first they’d heard of me, and now they were looking for my other books, as well. So it definitely increased interest in the series. Did it boost sales of the hardcover book? Damned it I know. (Well, I’m sure it did, but I haven’t a clue as to how much.)
Do you write each installment to be read as a stand-alone, or is each book in the series interconnected, so knowledge of previous volumes is necessary to understand the current one? Do you have any advice for writers working on multiple-book series of their own, and would you handle your own series any differently now than when you first started?
The story is a continuing arc, but each volume is a self-contained story that comes to a conclusion—and sets the stage for the next. I worked hard to build enough recap into the early parts of the stories that someone could pick up any book and enjoy it. But no question, the best way to read the series is from the beginning.
Advice to others? Don’t do what I did! (That’s my advice for investing in the stock market, too. Watch what I do. Then do something different.) I’m only partly serious, of course, but that part is sincere. I think where I went wrong was thinking that I could write a series of short, snappy novels that cumulatively would form a long, complex story. (This, you see, is what I always seem to do—write long, complex stories. I was trying to find a way to do it in a more sustainable way.) Then each Chaos book turned out a little longer than the one before, and soon I was writing a series of long, complex stories. People seem to like them. I’m proud of having written them. But making me independently wealthy, they’re not. 🙂
Your work is known for strong characterization and internal conflict. How do you use that internal conflict to create a character arc for the whole novel? Do you plan it out in advance, or do you discover it as you write? And how do you tie your characters’ internal conflict with the external conflict of the larger story?
Well, geez, if I tell you that now, what am I going to talk about when I get to the workshop?! I’ll tell you this much: I always have some vision for the overall story and character arc before I start writing. But much of it, I discover as I write. I seem to require the tension of being in the middle of the story to draw the full understanding of the character conflict out of my subconscious. I’m a very intuitive writer. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing until I’ve done it. There are people who can do all of that before setting down a word of the story. I hates them! (Preciousss…)
As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?
To quote the captain in the movie Galaxy Quest: “Never surrender! Never give up!” Or was it the other way around? Anyway, that’s the approach you have to take in writing. It can be terribly frustrating and discouraging when you can’t seem to get it right, or you think you’ve gotten it right and then a reader tells you, no, it’s actually still just warmed over beetle-dung, and you want to throw it all in the river. That’s when you have to remember those words. Not to shout in defense of what you’ve written, but to take a deep breath and keep at it until you do, finally, get it right.
Oh, and try to write something you would want to read yourself.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I am currently doing battle with the first draft of the fifth book of The Chaos Chronicles, tentatively titled, The Reefs of Time. Damn if I didn’t once more set myself some challenges that I don’t yet know the solution to. Why do I keep doing this?
I’m also working on getting all of my backlist into “print” as ebooks.
And I’m just finishing a short video piece for an arts festival sponsored by a local church: an audio visualization—for lack of a better term—of the fairly cosmic prologue to Sunborn. I hope to have that up for online viewing in a few weeks. I’ll put a link on my downloads page once it’s available. It’s 3 minutes long, and I think it’s pretty cool. Stop by and check it out! [Update: I’m still waiting for a few final changes by the guy who did much of the video editing. Soon.]